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Foster children have grim prospects

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on Mon, 08/13/2012 - 18:38
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The prospects for kids who age out of foster care are grim.

Studies show that half won't graduate from high school, one-quarter will be homeless for a while, and more than half will be unemployed within a year or two of leaving the child-welfare system.

More than 600 Arizona teens turned 18 and left foster care completely in the past year.

State policy requires teens who are 16 and likely to remain in foster care until they become adults to participate in a program to help them live on their own.

Services include counseling, training in life skills such as budgeting and grocery shopping, and help finding affordable housing, work and school opportunities.

Soon after they turn 18 or graduate from high school, they must move out on their own.

Until age 21, young adults can qualify for a living allowance of up to $715 a month as long as they're working or in school and following other Child Protective Services rules, like keeping in touch with case managers.

But just 30 percent take advantage of voluntary independent-living services right after they age out. And several months after they turn 18, those services dwindle to a monthly visit from a CPS case manager.

"There aren't enough people out there who will commit to these kids after they turn 18. And that's usually when they screw up," said Mary Schraven, who runs the youth-in-transition program for Jewish Family & Children's Service.

Bryan Kelly, 18, has been in dozens of foster homes, shelters and group homes.

Now living in a Glendale group home, Kelly has two case managers -- one from CPS and another from Florence Crittendon, a non-profit agency that has the Maricopa County contract to help youth transition out of foster care.

The caseworkers are supposed to visit him at least once a month to help guide him toward living on his own in December, when he expects to graduate from high school and must move out.

His diploma, the support of a mentor and a solid game plan will give Kelly an advantage.

Most foster teens live in group homes and are more likely to run away from CPS before their 18th birthday.

"The systems that we ask them to live in are not normal," said Tonia Stott, a postdoctoral scholar at Arizona State University who researched Arizona foster teens who aged out. "Ultimately, we want them to be normal, but we don't provide them any normal context to grow up in."

Aging out of foster care

The state is required to help teens develop life skills and prepare them to live independently. Once they turn 18 and move out on their own, whether or not they elect to participate in voluntary foster-care services, they receive:

Their birth certificate.

A Social Security card and state identification card.

Family history, including medical history and photos, letters or other items in their case file.

Enrollment in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System until they turn 21.


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Crisis shelters and group homes are intended to be temporary placements for older foster children, a stop along the way to a permanent home -- either back with parents or to adoption.

But an unprecedented number of children and a shortage of foster homes over the past year led state officials to appeal to shelters and group homes to expand their capacity to care for babies and toddlers.

Nearly 1,700 of the state's 12,289 foster children lived in group homes and shelters in February, a record.

Thirty-three babies and children younger than 4 years old were housed in so-called congregate care, including eight infants, according to state data. That's nearly double the 18 children younger than 4 who lived in group homes or shelters a year ago.

Those young children are staying longer in shelters than in previous years. And for hundreds of Arizona children, most of them teenagers, group homes are where they will live until they become adults.

The care is expensive. The state paid child-crisis shelters $2,578 on average per child in February and paid group homes $3,373, compared with $609 a month for an average foster home.

Research shows such care can be particularly harmful for early brain development when babies and toddlers need a single, consistent caregiver as opposed to shifts of adults.

For older children, multiple placements in group homes and shelters increase their chances of dropping out of school, becoming homeless, using drugs, going to jail and other problems.

At Glenn House in Glendale, eight boys and two young men share three bedrooms in a nondescript stucco house on a quiet cul-de-sac. There's a track star who's got his sights on Arizona State University, a chatty 19-year-old managing his serious mental illness, an 18-year-old who plans to be an auto mechanic and a polite 14-year-old who entered foster care just two months ago and hopes to reunite with his mother and siblings as soon as possible.

House manager Eric Mengel has worked at the group home for 13 years and seen the boys get tougher, more troubled and more likely to suffer from addictions. And they are coming at a pace he's never seen.

"We used to have an opening for a day or two," Mengel said. "Now, it's minutes."